Google’s prototype self-driving car only goes 25 mph, but it still faces a long process with regulators before the general public can get behind the wheel of one. California will enact rules on Sept. 16 to allow test-driving of autonomous cars on public roads, but federal regulators might take until 2020 or later to draft rules that open America’s highways to self-driving cars.
Google hopes autonomous cars will alleviate the search for parking, create safe travel options for drunken drivers and make motoring easier for seniors who no longer can drive on their own, according to a blog post by Chris Urmson, director of the self-driving car project.
“We’re planning to build about a hundred prototype vehicles, and later this summer, our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls,” Urmson said. “If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years.”
California legalized autonomous cars on its roads in 2012, following in the footsteps of Nevada and Florida, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin predicted that same year that self-driving vehicles would be available to "ordinary people" in less than five years. Michigan lawmakers late last year also approved autonomous car testing in the state.
Come September, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles will require a trained driver at the wheel of autonomous cars during test drives, a $5 million dollar insurance bond from the manufacturer and a promise to report all incidents when the autopilot is disengaged. The department’s next regulations, slated for December, will establish the testing standards manufacturers must meet in order to publicly deploy such cars.
But federal regulators are not moving as quickly to prepare roads for autonomous cars. Nationwide rules for self-driving cars might not be ready before 2020, Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Rajkumar said during a House hearing in November, citing safety concerns. Rajkumar is the co-director of a Carnegie Mellon autonomous driving research lab that's a collaboration with General Motors.
Selling a self-driving car to consumers by 2020 was also a goal mentioned during that hearing by Andy Christensen, senior manager for technology planning at Nissan Technical Center North America.
The government additionally is moving slowly on rules for companies to use aerial drones, delaying its original deadline of 2015, so rules for the even newer self-driving car technology could take even longer than 2020. Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said it is “ unclear” when the agency will complete privacy and safety rules for drones, he told Congress in February.
Google’s prototype autonomous car is designed for “learning, not luxury,” Urmson said. It has two seats, a screen that shows its route and buttons to start and stop the car. Google employees have been testing the car near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and have
improved the software so it recognizes objects during a city drive that are not found on a more predictable freeway commute, including pedestrians, buses and cyclists.